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A. A. Michelson and the Ether

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Abstract

With this remark, Nobel Prize-winning physicist A. A. Michelson summed up his philosophy of science. The comment was delivered at the dedication of the University of Chicago’s Ryerson laboratory, named in honor of the legendary Illinois lumber baron whose son, Martin Ryerson, donated $150,000 for a new lab. Radically wrong as it proved to be, it demonstrates the colossal egocentricity of one of the towering figures in the history of American science. The year was 1898. The United States would declare war on Spain over Cuba and Marie and Pierre Curie would discover radium.

Keywords

Light Beam Nobel Prize American Science Pierre Curie Foucault Pendulum 
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Endnotes

  1. 1.
    A. A. Michelson, “Some of the Objects and Methods of Physical Science,” Quarterly Calendar, August 1884.Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    Elizabeth Crawford, “Scientific Elite Revisited: American Candidates for the Nobel Prizes in Physics and Chemistry 1901–1938,” in The Michelson Era in American Science: 1870–1930 (American Institute of Physics, New York, 1988), p. 260.Google Scholar
  3. 3.
    From Dorothy Michelson Livingston, The Master of Light: A Biography of Albert A. Michelson (Scribner’s, New York, 1973).Google Scholar
  4. 4.
    K. M. Olesko, “Michelson and the Reform of Physics Instruction at the Naval Academy in the 1870s,” in The Michelson Era in American Science: 1870–1930 (American Institute of Physics, New York, 1988), p. 43.Google Scholar
  5. 5.
    This is thoroughly discussed by William Koelsch in his article “The Michelson Era at Clark, 1889–1892,” in The Michelson Era in American Science: 1870–1930 (American Institute of Physics, New York, 1988), pp. 133–151.Google Scholar
  6. 6.
    Mitchell Wilson, American Science and Invention (Simon & Schuster, New York, 1954), p. 311.Google Scholar
  7. 7.
    Robert Millikan, The Autobiography of Robert Millikan (Prentice-Hall, Englewood Cliffs, N.J., 1950), p. 87; compare this version with “Albert Abraham Michelson,” Biographical Memoirs of the National Academy of Sciences, 1938, p. 126.Google Scholar
  8. 8.
    Lynde Phelps Wheeler, Josiah Willard Gibbs, the History of a Great Mind (Yale University Press, New Haven, Conn., 1951), pp. 140–141.Google Scholar
  9. 9.
    Mitchell Wilson, American Science and Invention (Simon & Schuster, New York, 1954), p. 314.Google Scholar
  10. 10.
    A. A. Michelson, “The Relative Motion of the Earth and the Luminif-erous Ether,” American Journal of Science, 1881, XXII.Google Scholar
  11. 11.
    Daniel J. Kevles, The Physicists (Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 1978), p. 29.Google Scholar
  12. 12.
    H. A. Lorentz, “The Relative Motion of the Earth and the Ether,” V K. Akad. Wet. Amsterdam, 1892,1:74; in H. A. Lorentz, Collected Papers, Vol. 4, Zeeman and Foker, editors, pp. 219–223; see alsoGoogle Scholar
  13. 12a.
    J. Z. Buchwald, “The Michelson Experiment in the Light of Electromagnetic Theory Before 1900,” in The Michelson Era in American Science: 1870–1930 (American Institute of Physics, New York, 1988).Google Scholar
  14. 13.
    Barbara Haubold et al, “Michelson’s First Ether Drift Experiment in Berlin and Potsdam,” in The Michelson Era in American Science: 1870–1930 (American Institute of Physics, New York, 1988).Google Scholar
  15. 14.
    J. Z. Buchwald, “The Michelson Experiment in the Light of Electromagnetic Theory Before 1900,” in The Michelson Era in American Science: 1870–1930 (American Institute of Physics, New York, 1988).Google Scholar
  16. 15.
    Lloyd S. Swenson, “Michelson-Morley, Einstein and Interferometry,” in The Michelson Era in American Science: 1870–1930 (American Institute of Physics, New York, 1988), p. 238.Google Scholar
  17. 16.
    A. Einstein, translated by Y. A. Ono, “How I Created the Theory of Relativity,” Physics Today, August 1982.Google Scholar
  18. 17.
    D. H. Stapleton, “The Context of Science: The Community of Industry and Higher Education in Cleveland in the 1880s,” in The Michelson Era in American Science: 1870–1930 (American Institute of Physics, New York, 1988), p. 21.Google Scholar

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© Anthony Serafini 1993

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